Chesney Gets Honest With Problems

For Kenny Chesney , there are a lot of things different these days.

The singer from Luttrell, Tenn., has undertaken his first major tour as a headliner; he has just released his first studio album in more than three years, No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, and critics are being kind; and he is a different person, he says, after doing a little living.

“There’s still a lot of partying and a lot of good times on this record,” Chesney, 34, maintains during a conversation at his record label office, “but there is more deep emotional stuff. There’s more songs on this record that are more emotional than any songs I’ve ever had on a record.”

In line with the “now I know how Jimmy Buffett feels” sentiment expressed by Chesney in “How Forever Feels,” his No. 1 hit from 1999, the new album boasts an island-inspired title track and pictures of Chesney on sunny, sandy beaches. An up-tempo number, “Live Those Songs,” gets its juice from classic rock guitar licks, as does “Big Star.” “Young,” the No. 2 country single, with its hoo-hoo chorus, is the other fist pumper.

Chesney will be featured in special programming when CMT becomes “KCMT” (Kenny Chesney Music Television) on Saturday and Sunday (April 27-28). The fun-loving side of the country singer will be on display in an hour-long concert special airing at 3 p.m. Saturday and at noon Sunday (ET). Saturday he will co-host CMT’s Most Wanted Live and guest on the Grand Ole Opry at 8 p.m.

For much of No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems, Chesney, is, as he says, baring his emotions. Some songs, whether he wrote them or not, are tied to his broken engagement to Mandy, his former fiance. He was “totally in love,” he admits, and things didn’t work out. “It’s not a very easy thing to go through. You learn a lot of lessons.”

Those lessons find their way onto the album.

“A song like ‘I Remember’ [written by Brad Crisler and James LeBlanc] and a song like ‘I Can’t Go There’ [by Chesney and Skip Ewing], all those songs are about her, every dang one of them,” he says, laughing some at the prickly reality. “She knows it. There’s a lot of us in this record. ‘One Step Up,’ the Springsteen song, is about her.”

Well, not really. But Chesney believes the heartbreak he endured means he can sing convincingly about a relationship that isn’t working out — the subject of Bruce Springsteen’s composition.

By pouring his emotions into the album, co-produced with Norro Wilson and Buddy Cannon, Chesney feels he has come up with the most honest outing of a career that began in 1993 at Capricorn Records. Critics and his colleagues in the industry have been slow to afford him the kind of respect he seems to be winning now. He is nominated for top male vocalist at the upcoming Academy of Country Music Awards.

“This is the first album I’ve made where I’ve related to and lived a part of every single one of these songs,” Chesney reasons. “I’ve never done that with an album before, ever in my life. It’s always been a couple of songs that I’ve lived and understood — and then cut a bunch of songs that might sound good on the radio. I think I’ve got songs that sound good on the radio, but I think that there is more depth to these songs, and that just comes with growing.”

One of the album’s strongest entries is “A Lot of Things Different,” written by Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson with Dean Dillon. Part song, part recitation, the song catalogs choices not made. Chesney hopes it will be a radio single.

“In college, I wanted to ask this girl out so bad and never did,” he recalls. “I regret that. ‘A Lot of Things Different’ is a song about regrets and trying to put all of ‘em behind you. I don’t want to be 10 years down the line and say I wish we’d released ‘A Lot of Things Different.’”

Allegiance to quality may serve Chesney well. His label, BNA Records shipped 1 million copies of No Shoes this week. The disc could very well debut next week at No. 1 on Billboard‘s country and pop album charts.

“This album is definitely honest,” Chesney says. “Whether critics are going to see it or not remains to be seen, but I can tell you this is the most honest, truthful collection of songs that I’ve ever had in my life.”